Let's talk about Al Qaeda within the broader context of militant Islam as a political and cultural force. What is Al Qaeda, what's the idea behind it, what does it represent?
Well, I think Al Qaeda is a lot of things. It's partly an ideology, it's partly a political-cultural force. It's also, as your documentary suggests, a state of mind. It represents a huge amount of alienation, particularly toward the United States and what is perceived throughout the larger Islamic world as failed and unequal American foreign policies.
Our war against terrorism is largely perceived in the Muslim world as a war against Islam. Al Qaeda gains strength every day when we seem to be coming closer and closer to war with Iraq, and I think that the day the first American bomb falls on Baghdad you're going to see hundreds, if not thousands, of potential Osama bin Ladens joining militant Islamist movements across the Muslim world.
Al Qaeda is not, and has never been, a structured organization. It is very dissimilar to the terrorist groups of the 1970s -- the Palestinian group led by Abu Nidal comes to mind. Al Qaeda has always been very loosely structured, very amorphous. The greatest danger of Al Qaeda lies in its component parts -- militant Islamist groups spread across at least 50 countries on four continents.
And what role does Al Qaeda itself play? Is it the glue holding these groups together, if they're even held together? Or is it the inspiration?
It offers inspiration and, depending upon the operation and/or the group, it offers training, logistical support, financing. Since the Taliban was overthrown in Afghanistan, obviously, there is not even this much of a centralized command. But they are still working, they are still organizing, they are still implementing attacks. Just in the last month we have seen attacks in Yemen, in Kuwait, in Pakistan, and most significantly in Bali, Indonesia, where more than 180 people died.
Ron Noble, the secretary general of Interpol, told Le Figaro last Friday that he anticipates simultaneous attacks in several countries by several terrorist groups. So, whether or not there is still a leadership command, a central Al Qaeda cadre, or whether these attacks are now being planned and implemented by various groups on the ground, I don't think anyone can say. I don't think we know at this point.
There's been a tendency whenever something happens, such as the Bali bombing, to say instantly that it's Al Qaeda, to see everything as Al Qaeda. Is there a danger in focusing specifically on Al Qaeda and not taking each group in its local setting on a case-by-case basis?
I think this has been one of the errors of the U.S. government since we first went out to destroy Al Qaeda, because not only have we superimposed Al Qaeda upon the entire world of militant Islam, we have also made Osama bin Laden practically a poster boy for world terrorism. And by ignoring the component parts, whether they are groups in Pakistan or Indonesia or Egypt or Saudi Arabia, I think that we are going to continue to see acts of terrorism.
We have got to really isolate the groups on the ground. We have got to get cooperation from leaders like Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. Musharraf has been very, very hesitant to clamp down on the Islamist militant groups in Pakistan -- as, for that matter, every other leader in Pakistan's history has been, whether dictator or democrat. These Pakistani groups -- there are at least a dozen Islamist armies based in Pakistan -- are all offshoots of earlier groups launched during the 1980s by American and Pakistani intelligence, during the first Afghanistan war. And since that time these groups have been used and nurtured for reasons of state. Successive Pakistani governments have used the militant Islamists to bring about a compliant Afghanistan, a client state in effect, a launching pad for the newest jihad in the Indian state of Kashmir.
There seems to be some debate over how to view Al Qaeda and militant Islam in a global and historical context. On the one hand, there are many who say that although Al Qaeda itself may be on the run, the idea or movement behind it is still very strong, perhaps growing. On the other hand, we hear the argument that militant Islam has in fact failed, and that bin Laden and Sept. 11 are proof of that failure. What do you make of this debate?
I would certainly go with the first school of thought. The influence of militant Islam, I think, continues to grow. In the Sept. 11 attacks, for example, of the 19 suicide hijackers only two were of the generation of the first jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when militant Islam really took off. The others are of the second generation: they are not the children of the jihad any longer, they're the grandchildren of the jihad. And that, for me, is very frightening. None of the original root causes of their anger have been addressed by the U.S. government -- or other Western governments, but particularly Washington.
So I think you have, on the one hand, underground militant Islam growing, and I think you have moderate and/or acceptable political Islam growing as well.
We have seen elections over the last few weeks in Turkey, where the Islamists swept the boards; in Bahrain, where the Islamists swept the boards; and in Pakistan, where the Islamists did extraordinarily well. Everyone in Pakistan was stunned, because a six-party alliance of militant Islamist groups won nearly 70 seats in the National Assembly. This is nearly 25 percent of the seats that were contested. Compare this to Pakistan's last parliamentary election, in 1997, in which they won only four seats. And the Islamists in Pakistan campaigned on only three planks: a visceral anti-American platform, in which they called for the expulsion of all U.S. forces from Pakistan; the acceleration of the jihad in the Indian state of Kashmir; and the implementation of sharia law.
Over the weekend of Nov. 9, the Maulana Fazlur Rahman -- who at that point was generally considered the front-runner for the post of prime minister -- told the Associated Press in an interview that the United States must leave Pakistan immediately. At the same time, one of his deputies announced to the press that it was the duty of every Pakistani Muslim to protect and offer sanctuary to members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
So there's clearly a spectrum of Islamism in these various countries, from more moderate to more militant. That is, the Islamists who won in Turkey aren't of the same stripe as those in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. Can you speak to that?
Yes, they're very, very different. When you say "militant Islam" or "Islamism" you run the gamut of the political spectrum.
The Turkish Islamists campaigned on a liberal, almost a secular, platform, which included integration of Turkey into the European Union. They are certainly pro-American. Turkey, as you know, is one of the key staging areas for U.S. military forces and will continue to be if we go into Iraq.
And then you go to a place like Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood -- the oldest and now the most moderate of Egypt's various Islamist groups -- in the 1980s, standing under the banner of the Labor Party, became the second largest party in Egypt, leading the opposition in Parliament. And they performed very, very moderately, very respectfully. They wanted a piece of the pie, they got a piece of the pie, and when they were inside the political arena they performed very well. They launched an incredible number of social programs, economic programs, set up day-care centers, women's training programs, hospitals, schools. And I'm sure that the Turkish Islamists are going to do the same thing.
The Pakistani Islamists, however, are very different. It's almost an Islamic populism in Pakistan. They are militant. They are largely from the madrassas, the Islamist religious schools, which are rote-learning centers where the Quran and jihad are the two key subjects. They are not graduates of Western universities, most of them are not intellectuals, lawyers, economists, professors, as they are in Turkey and as they are in Egypt. The Pakistanis, granted, have some of all of these categories of people in their ranks, and many of them will assume positions of power. The Maulana Fazlur Rahman is a product of Al-Azhar University. But many of his colleagues have received only degrees from madrassas.
And it's not just their role in the central government -- in which, it now appears, they will be the leaders of the opposition, along with Benazir Bhutto's party -- and the influence that they will wield there that has to be taken into account; they also control Pakistan's two most sensitive and strategic provinces: the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan, both of which border Afghanistan, both of which have become home to, according to Pakistani intelligence sources, at least 5,000 members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, perhaps even Osama bin Laden himself.
Now we have the JUI -- Fazlur Rahman's party, the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam -- saying it is the duty of every Pakistani Muslim to protect and offer sanctuary to these people. And that is going to pose an enormous problem for the United States.
In your book you paint a vivid picture of how the border region, especially the city of Peshawar in the Northwest Frontier, is the birthplace and the stronghold of, not only Al Qaeda, but the global militant-Islamist movement. Is that fair to say? Is Pakistan, in a way, "ground zero" of militant Islam?
Yes, it is. This is where it all began. Remember, during the decade-long jihad to rid Afghanistan of Soviet forces, some 25,000 Islamic militants, from more than 30 countries around the world, streamed into Peshawar to go off to Afghanistan and fight in the jihad.
And this is one of the ironies of the militant Islamist movement today, the fact that the vast majority of its leaders were funded, armed, and trained on the battlefields of Afghanistan 20 years ago by the United States. And now, in a sense, they've begun returning home. They were driven out of Afghanistan by the United States bombing campaign after Sept. 11, and they've come home to Pakistan. Of course, many of them have gone back to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or to the West Bank and Gaza, or to Egypt, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia generally, but huge numbers have returned to Pakistan. Because this is where it all began.
And at this point, you have at least 128 military training camps dotting the mountains and valleys of Pakistan. More than 1,000 young men pass through them each year, joining the ranks of some 60,000 to 100,000 Islamic militants who have fought or trained in Afghanistan and then, well-armed, have returned home to Pakistan.
Explain to me the connection between Al Qaeda and those Pakistani militants. You write about these indigenous, private Islamist armies in Pakistan.
They've been connected with Al Qaeda for many, many years. Take the Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen (HUM), for example, one of Pakistan's strongest militant Islamist groups, and its leader, a chap by the name of Fazlur Rehman Khalil. Khalil is now considered to be one of Pakistan's most-wanted men. But when I finished my book, my fact-checkers were able to find him on his cell phone to confirm his age, his appearance, et cetera. So, you know, this is emblematic of how seriously, or not seriously, Musharraf is taking the quest for members of both Al Qaeda and Pakistan's own militant groups.
Using Fazlur Rehman Khalil as, if you will, a symbol for the Pakistani groups, he has known bin Laden for 20 years -- they fought together during the jihad with a Wahhabi (that is, Saudi-inspired and funded) warlord by the name of Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf. Khalil then returned to Pakistan. His organization, the HUM -- which, incidentally, was the first Pakistani group, the only Pakistani group prior to Sept. 11, that the U.S. government branded a terrorist organization -- shared training camps with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. After the U.S. bombing campaign began, HUM cadres all across Pakistan assisted members of Al Qaeda, helping them to re-infiltrate from Afghanistan into Pakistan. They helped them establish, for all intents and purposes, new identities, new papers. They gave them money, gave them safe havens in Pakistani cities and towns.
And this is one of the most alarming things: Even though they first re-infiltrated across the border and regrouped in the tribal lands, they have now begun to infiltrate major Pakistani urban centers. The two key Al Qaeda leaders that we have managed to capture during this now 13-month war, Abu Zubaydah -- a Saudi-born Palestinian who was Al Qaeda's chief of operations, the number-three man in Al Qaeda -- was arrested in Pakistan in March, but not in the border areas, not in a cave, but in the heart of Faisalabad, hundreds of miles away. And more recently, Ramzi bin al-Shibh -- who was not influential in Al Qaeda per se, but who was influential in helping to organize, according to U.S. investigators, the Sept. 11 attacks -- was arrested in a middle-class neighborhood in Karachi.
We know that Al Qaeda and these Pakistani groups have shared resources and trained together and given each other logistical support, but have they had the same objectives? My understanding is that the Pakistani groups have always been more focused on Kashmir.
That's right. But they also share a lot of common causes. Look at Osama bin Laden, for example. For Osama, like many members of Pakistan's militant Islamist groups, there were really three signposts along the road: the jihad in Afghanistan, which politicized him; the Persian Gulf War, which radicalized him; and much more recently, the Palestinian intifada, which has given him a cause that resonates on Arab streets.
And for the Pakistani groups, of course, there is the battle for Kashmir, a battle from which the United States has assiduously distanced itself, to the collective anger of both Pakistan's generals and its Islamic militants. One of the tragedies of Pakistan is that for more than 50 years, everything, in a sense, has been held hostage by Kashmir.
I'd like to pick up on the American role in that. What are the roots, and the dynamics, of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan?
Well, very sadly, I think that they're quite well-grounded and all too true. Pakistan was the key staging area for the first American war in Afghanistan, the so-called jihad, against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. And Pakistan became both perpetrator and victim of that war.
No country on earth, then or now, was or is more critical to U.S. geopolitical and strategic objectives than Pakistan. But at what cost to Pakistan? When the first war in Afghanistan was over -- the Soviet Union withdrew in February of 1989 -- the United States walked away from Pakistan, leaving behind a country awash with drugs, with arms; a country where sectarian violence was on the rise; a country where political assassination had become common.
A year after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, what was our thank-you note to Pakistan? We clamped economic and military sanctions on Pakistan because of its program to develop a nuclear weapon. This program was very conveniently overlooked by the Carter and the Reagan administrations for 10 years. But in October 1990, the first Bush administration imposed sanctions when the first President Bush said he could no longer certify that Pakistan was not developing a nuclear device. Those sanctions remained in effect from October 1990 until October 2001. And this is something that is remembered by every single Pakistani I know, whether General Pervez Musharraf or a militant Islamist or a man on the street.
We have been very uneven, very inconsistent, and very hypocritical, I think, in our policies toward Pakistan. Kashmir is the perfect example of this. The dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, which has already provoked two of their three wars, is a dispute with a history of 55 years. Kashmir has been divided since the partition of British India in 1947. There are dozens of U.N. resolutions on the books calling for a referendum, a plebiscite, to allow the Kashmiris to decide whether or not they want to be part of India or part of Pakistan.
We are now chastising, threatening, Saddam Hussein for non-compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions. Why don't we do the same vis-à-vis Kashmir? Because as long as Kashmir continues, as long as this dispute is not finally brought to fruition and resolved, you are going to have two nuclear-armed powers facing each other, eyeball to eyeball, across the Line of Control. Which is what led President Clinton to say, two years ago, that Kashmir is the most dangerous place on earth.
You write that Kashmir has been transformed from a nationalist struggle into a holy war. And therein lies, it seems, much of the connection between the U.S. war on terror and the balance of terror between Pakistan and India. Yet much of the anti-American sentiment in Pakistan is, as you say, more generalized -- not specifically militant Islamic. They certainly flow together, but there's more to anti-Americanism in Pakistan than just "Islam versus the West."
Oh, absolutely. Pervez Musharraf, in interviews I had with him before he became a very reluctant ally of America's -- I mean, after Sept. 11 he had no choice, it was "you're with us or against us" -- was not always favorably disposed toward the United States. He said to me, very heatedly, "We have supported your country for 50 years, half a century, and then you walked away."
And we walked away at precisely the time that the Pakistani army, which has been the arbiter of political power in Pakistan for its 55 independent years, was in and of itself becoming more anti-American, more fundamentalist. The tradition of the old, Sandhurst-educated, aristocratic general with a waxed mustache was fading. More and more officers, junior officers, were coming from the villages. They did not have the aristocratic bearing or background or education of Musharraf's generation of officers. We are seeing, in Pervez Musharraf and his generation, the last of the Western-trained officers. And when Musharraf was asked, when he took over as chief of the army staff, before he staged his coup in October of 1999, what his biggest worry was, he said, "that 75 percent of my officers have never been out of Pakistan."
Can you explain how the struggle between secular and religious forces in Pakistan is played out even within the army and the intelligence service -- and how Musharraf was forced to negotiate this in the recent elections? Where does he stand?
Well, Musharraf is walking an incredible tightrope. But, in another respect, he's also just hoisted himself on his own petard, based on, to a great extent, faulty input from his army, which is his only constituency, and his intelligence service, the ISI, which has practically become a kingdom within the state.
Musharraf is disdainful of politicians. He makes absolutely no quibble about this. He has done everything in his power to demean, to ridicule, to marginalize Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the only two popularly elected leaders in the last quarter of a century in Pakistan. He did not permit either of them to stand in the October elections. They are both in exile abroad. They were both twice popularly elected, twice then deposed.
He held a referendum in April, six months before the parliamentary elections, in which he extended his term of office by five years, and it divided his army, as I understand it. A number of the corps commanders -- there are nine corps commanders, and they hold the ultimate power in Pakistan -- objected to his self-orchestrated and imposed referendum. This was a referendum in which voters were given the choice of voting yes or no, in which no opposition candidates were permitted to stand, and in which rallies by opposition political parties, until the last day of the campaign, were banned.
Now, if Musharraf had hoped to establish his legitimacy through this, he had, in fact, badly diminished it. The turnout, by generally accepted figures at this point, was probably about 10 percent. Twenty-five percent was the figure that was first quoted by his minister of information, and the government immediately disputed this, and said, "No, no. The minister was wrong. There was a 50 percent turnout." But no one outside the government itself found this even remotely credible.
So Musharraf, by marginalizing the political parties, the traditional secular parties, by ridiculing them, by demeaning them, created a vacuum. And who stepped into that vacuum but the religious parties.
Now there is a great deal of very credible information from observers from a number of organizations, including the European Union, that the army went out of its way to back many of the religious candidates. That being said, the army expected a respectable showing by the religious right, but they did not expect the monumental gains that the religious parties made. So now we're faced with a situation in which the religious right has played a key role as the kingmakers in Parliament.
And what has happened since the elections in October? There's been a great deal of uncertainty about what shape the new government would take, and how Musharraf would come out.
In the first week of November, it was announced that the religious right and Benazir Bhutto's party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), were going into a coalition government, and that the Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the Islamist leader from the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan, would be the new Prime Minister of Pakistan. And I might add that this is the same Maulana Fazlur Rahman who, according to a spokesman from the Afghan Ministry of Defense, in the spring of this year, was instrumental in getting Osama bin Laden across the border, out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan; who considers Osama bin Laden to be the greatest jihadi who ever lived; who counts Mullah Mohammed Omar as one of his closest friends; who won, for all intents and purposes, a landslide in the Northwest Frontier Province, and even in the cities of Pakistan, with his viscerally anti-American platform; a man who, along with Mullah Omar, also counts the Libyan leader, Colonel Qaddafi, as one of his closest friends; who has been variously said by Western intelligence organizations to have been funded over the years by Libya, by Saudi Arabia, by Iran.
Then Musharraf canceled the convening of Parliament, which was due to take place on Nov. 8. There were meetings all weekend long, and the opposition claimed that Musharraf was horse trading, bargaining, trying his level best, along with the ISI, to thwart the PPP and the MMA, the religious alliance, from forming a government.
And as we saw, the result was that Musharraf's hand-picked choice, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, was elected prime minister with a razor-thin majority of one vote in the Parliament. None of this bodes well for the stability of Pakistan in the months ahead -- and Pakistan's stability is directly linked to the security interests of the United States, to our war against terror, to the standoff in Kashmir, and to the viability of the 5,000 or more members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban who are believed to be regrouping in Pakistan.
Tell me about Jamali. He's from Baluchistan, he's an ally of Musharraf's. What do we know about him? How significant is it that he's from a small village in the western province of Baluchistan?
It's quite significant, because he will be the first prime minister of Pakistan from Baluchistan, a province which has always felt very marginalized in the larger context of Pakistan. Jamali is a veteran politician. He's from an influential Pathan [Pashtun] family, he's generally considered to be moderate, he has served in various cabinets over the years, and he is known to get on well with Pakistan's religious establishment. His critics, however, have charged that he's unlikely to challenge Musharraf. Other observers have said that in the past, on occasion, he has asserted himself. But the general consensus is that he is very likely to come under considerable pressure in his new job. Three of the four largest parties in Parliament remain dead set against Musharraf's policies.
To what extent does the U.S. pursuit of Al Qaeda within Pakistan, and the larger U.S. war on terror, really hold Musharraf's fate in the balance? Does it come down to U.S. policy? Or is it more complicated?
Well, U.S. policy is certainly one of many ingredients making Musharraf increasingly vulnerable, even before these elections, before the religious parties assumed leadership in both the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan.
Even before this, there was a huge amount of animosity among the tribal groups toward the U.S. pursuit of Al Qaeda and the Taliban inside Pakistan. These are tribal areas where the central government has never had more than a very limited writ. They are, for all intents and purposes, autonomous. The people are largely Pashtun, or Pathan, as they are called in Pakistan. Their affinity is much more with the Pashtuns of Afghanistan than with the leaders of Pakistan. So you've had, since Sept. 12, 2001, a very, very hostile population on the ground.
Now this population is going to be ruled by militant clerics. So it's going to make not only the U.S. war much, much more difficult, but it is also going to make Musharraf's position even more fragile.
You end the book with an anecdote about Musharraf. At an elegant dinner party last spring he was asked by a guest about the deteriorating security situation in Karachi. As you write, "He told his assembled guests: 'This is how I protect myself.' And then, with a flourish of his large hand ... [he] pulled a silver-plated pistol out, and brandished it in the air. There was pin-drop silence in the room. None of the guests could recall anything like this ever happening in Pakistan before." Can you unpack that image? What does this say about Musharraf? And what does it mean for Pakistan and the region?
What this means about Musharraf -- as many, many Pakistanis have told me -- is that he is first and foremost a commando. He came of age as a commando in the Pakistani army. He has been described to me by a number of Pakistani generals, including two of his former commanding officers, as a brilliant tactician, but not an overarching strategist.
And I think, in many respects, this portrait of Musharraf was very symbolically played out during the elections. The elections were tactically, he thought, brilliantly conducted. They were strategically a disaster for him.
And what this kind of a Musharraf -- Musharraf the commando, Musharraf the tactician, as opposed to Musharraf the strategist -- means for regional stability must be viewed primarily in the context of Kashmir. Musharraf is obsessed by Kashmir. Musharraf was the general who in the summer of 1999 -- before he overthrew Nawaz Sharif in October of that year -- launched the abortive operation into the Kargil area of the Indian state of Kashmir. It was only through the efforts of then President Clinton that Pakistan withdrew its troops and its irregular forces, its jihadis, from Kashmir. India and Pakistan almost came to war then. They almost came to war again earlier this year, in May. Musharraf won't let go of Kashmir. He has gambled on Kashmir -- and he's gambled very, very badly.
So unless there is a resolution of the Kashmir conflict, I think that Musharraf is going to continue to gamble. And this bodes very ill for regional stability.
Is it just his own obsession with it? Or is it also part of a larger political calculation that he keeps coming back to Kashmir?
It's a much larger political calculation. This has been going on for 55 years, and Kashmir is integral to both India's and Pakistan's identity. The whole concept of a secular, multi-ethnic India would be threatened by Kashmir's loss. Pakistan, for its part, was created on the basis of Islam to provide a homeland for the subcontinent's Muslims. As Zulfikar Ali Bhutto said in 1964, "Kashmir must be liberated if Pakistan is to have its full meaning."
Yet the tragedy of Kashmir is that it's a battle that neither India nor Pakistan can win militarily, but it's a battle that neither can lose politically.
"The Real Bin Laden," by Mary Anne Weaver
In a lengthy profile of Osama bin Laden for The New Yorker in January 2000, Mary Anne Weaver called attention to some of the vexing questions bin Laden had already raised for the U.S. government: namely, "how to respond to an enemy who is a man and not a state; who has no structured organization, no headquarters, and no fixed address; and whose followers live in different countries and feel a loyalty not so much to that man as to the ideology of militant Islam." [The New Yorker, Jan. 24, 2000]
"Islam Rising: A Conversation with Mary Anne Weaver"
In this February 1999 interview in The Atlantic Monthly's online edition, Weaver discusses her book A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam. The rise of Islamism, she noted at the time, "is happening throughout the Arab Middle East -- in Jordan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These governments have closed the political system to such an extent that the secular forces ... have been totally marginalized. ... The Islamists have provided the only viable alternative to these governments." [Atlantic Unbound, Feb. 17, 1999]
"Blowback," by Mary Anne Weaver
In this prescient May 1996 article for The Atlantic Monthly, Weaver traced how the CIA, through its covert operations in Afghanistan during the 1980s, "helped to train and fund what eventually became an international network of highly disciplined and effective Islamic militants -- and a new breed of terrorist as well." [The Atlantic Monthly, May 1996]